Over the last year, a few people have written in with a mailbag question along the lines of this one from Jenny:
You have an Instant Pot, right? Why don’t you mention it when you mention slow cookers?
The truth is easy: we don’t use it much at all anymore.
There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, but I want to start off by saying that Instant Pots do the job they’re designed for quite well, but that job that it does well turns out to be a job that’s not very useful in our lifestyle. It is absolutely perfect for very small pressure cooker tasks and for very long preparation meals. The truth is that we very rarely have a need for either.
So, let’s dig in.
It actually does reduce cooking time significantly on things that take a while to cook. A great example of this is a pot roast. If a pot roast would normally take you three or four hours on the stovetop or in the oven, the Instant Pot will almost always shave at least an hour off of that cooking time. That can make a real difference when it comes to planning meals.
The actual cooking time for an Instant Pot really is a lot shorter for a lot of recipes, and it is definitely more and more noticeable the longer the cooking time of the recipe actually is. But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one.
The time invested in getting the pot up to pressure and then releasing that pressure often eats up most of that saved time unless the recipe has a really long cook time. If you get down to recipes that are less than two hours of cooking time, the time invested in getting the pot up to pressure (which takes quite a while in my experience) and then the time needed to release that pressure (which, again, takes quite a while) ends up devouring much of that saved time. On recipes under an hour or so, it usually takes longer to cook it in the Instant Pot than it does to cook it traditionally. It’s only on recipes with a cook time over two hours where the Instant Pot begins to shine.
In reality, we simply don’t cook that many things in our home that have a cook time long enough to really expose the Instant Pot as a time saver. Most of the things we prepare are cooked rather quickly, usually in under an hour. The full cycle of the Instant Pot, including getting up to pressure and then releasing that pressure, takes up a lot of time.
There’s another time issue, too.
It takes a long time to clean when you use it in pressure cooker mode. If you’re using your Instant Pot to pressure cook items, it takes quite a while to clean it thoroughly. The pressure cooking lid isn’t dishwasher safe. You have to wash it by hand, which, again, takes a little while.
These extra steps — getting the Pot up to pressure, releasing the pressure and washing the lid — don’t add a lot of time individually, but collectively they add quite a bit of time to anything you cook in the Instant Pot.
What about using it in slow cooker mode?
If you use it as a slow cooker, it’s not very good as a slow cooker for a few reasons. You do have the option with an Instant Pot to buy a separate lid and use it as a slow cooker, which gives it more flexibility. The only thing is that, as a pure slow cooker, it’s mediocre.
The first issue we ran into was that “low” seemed to barely warm up food. It turned out that “low” is pretty much useless for slow cooking aside from perhaps as a “keep warm” mode. “Medium” is equivalent to “low” on a slow cooker. Still, not a big deal.
The problem we noticed is that it didn’t heat evenly. Near the bottom, it was as hot or hotter than we would expect, but about halfway up, it was cooler than we expected and near the top, it was almost cold. That’s not what you want from a meal cooked in a slow cooker. This works fine for pressure cooking, but it’s not fine for slow cooker meals.
You can, of course, “pressure cook” pretty much any meal that would slow cook, but the reason I like using a slow cooker is so that I can start it in the morning and it’s done in the evening, which I can’t do with the “pressure cooking” modes on an Instant Pot.
For small batch boiling water canning, it works well, but we usually want to do enough such that it would take a bunch of batches in the Instant Pot. To put it bluntly, the Instant Pot is not really made for any sort of large-batch canning, and unless you have an Instant Pot Max, you can’t do any kind of pressure canning at all. We did do a little bit of small-batch boiling water canning in it, but you’re doing just a couple of jars at a time, which can take forever.
If you’re really interested in canning and want to do significant batches at once, this is not the device you want. Go out and buy a dedicated large pressure cooker instead, one that’s designed and built for pressure canning.
In the end, when there’s a task where we might want to use an Instant Pot, we’re much more likely to turn to either a slow cooker, a traditional pot, or a large dedicated pressure cooker. If I want to cook a meal for my family, I found myself turning to the slow cooker in the morning or a traditional pot in the evening. If I wanted to do some boiling water canning, I’d use a large pot. If I wanted to do any pressure canning, I’d turn to a traditional pressure cooker. I never really had situations where I just wanted to pressure cook dinner because it didn’t save enough time to make it worth the extra steps.
There are certainly situations where an Instant Pot might be right for your family. I think it’s perfect if you usually have an hour or two before dinner and want to consistently make things like pot roasts. It’s absolutely perfect for those kinds of uses.
What it’s not useful for are the uses we have. We mostly either cook slow cooker meals that slowly cook throughout the day or meals that can be prepared quickly when Sarah or I are home. We want to occasionally can items, but when we do it, we do it in large batches so that we’re efficient as possible with it.
For us, the Instant Pot is mostly just a mediocre slow cooker with extremely rare additional uses that we can honestly replicate with other tools. It’s a good fit for other households, I think, but not for ours.
If you’re not doing small batch pressure cooking with any frequency and you’re not regularly preparing three-hour meals at home that you want to shorten to two-hour affairs, you’re better off with a slow cooker, in my opinion. If you’re really getting into the idea of pressure cooking, you’re better off buying a quality dedicated pressure cooker instead.
The Instant Pot occupies a middle ground, where it absolutely nails small batch pressure cooking of food and does small batch boiling water canning, but it doesn’t slow cook well and doesn’t do pressure canning unless you have an expensive model. If that matches your needs, the Instant Pot is a good choice. If not, pass on it. It’s a good device that just didn’t match our family’s kitchen needs.
For reference sake, we have the 6 quart Instant Pot Duo. Our slow cooker of choice is the 6 quart Crock Pot, and our pressure cooker of choice is the Presto 23 quart. Both the Crock Pot and the Presto pressure cooker were each less expensive than the Instant Pot.